Getting to know Monchique Municipality
Caldas de Monchique
Close to the blue sky and the green hills of the “serra” lies Caldas de Monchique, with its impressive collection of restored buildings and the only thermal spa in the Algarve. History tells us that that the Romans bathed in Monchique, benefiting from the excellent waters from the thermal springs. The sodic waters of Caldas de Monchique are rich in fluoride and bicarbonate, and are particularly suitable for the treatment of respiratory and muscular-skeletal conditions; in the field of beauty treatments they contain great powers of hydration.
A square shaded by trees and flanked by attractive buildings dating from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries epitomises the calm and relaxing atmosphere of Caldas de Monchique. It is well worth visiting the little glazed pavilion where the bubbling spring water gushes out, and the chapel of Santa Teresa (St. Theresa), which contains a series of 18th century tiled panels telling the story of the saint’s life.
The biggest attraction of Caldas de Monchique, however, is the extensive wooded park that rises up the hillside. Dappled patterns of light and shade, the gentle murmur of the river and trees that are hundreds of years old make the perfect backdrop for a gentle stroll or a picnic at the stone tables provided.
This charming village is made up of houses built in the style typical of the Algarve countryside. The medieval origins of the village church are evident in its ogival porch, its triumphal arch and the ribbed vault in its chancel. Nearby, on Cerro do Castelo, stand the ruins of a fortification with concentric walls that was probably built by the Romans.
The white of the low houses typical of the Algarve “serra” combines with many other colours including warm ochres. The country chapel of Santo António (St. Anthony) stands on a small elevation and there is a viewing point affording fine views of the surrounding countryside
A Tour in The Monchique Hills
Take the road up to Monchique and at almost every turn you encounter a stunning panorama of sea and mountains. For the broadest vistas, continue as far as Fóia, which at 902 metres is the highest point in the Algarve. From there the view stretches away on one side as far as Cape St. Vincent (and north to the Serra da Arrábida, near Lisbon), and on the other to Faro and a vast semi-circle of hills.
Picota is 774 metres high, but steeper, and has wide and perhaps even more beautiful views that take in a long sweep of the Algarve and the sea.
Such viewpoints make a good starting point for exploring this region of steep massifs cut through by valleys and ravines, of rivers and springs where all year round the sound of the cold water bubbling over the stones can be heard.
There are many routes to choose from. The road to Marmelete traverses a landscape of terraced slopes, fertile valleys and orchards, passing by the gigantic scar of the “foiaíto” quarries at Nave. The narrow tracks that wind into the Serra lead you to places like Romeiras, submerged in this sea of mountains, or surprise you with the sudden appearance of lakes like the one formed by the dam at Bravura. Serious fans of mountains, forests, magnificent scenery and splendid isolation will venture as far as Chirão, Chã de Casinha and Taipa. Possibly one of the most spectacular routes is the one that drops from Alferce to Fornalhas and Monchicão, crossing a landscape of hills, their tops lending a greyish hue to the horizon, the green of millions of trees covering valleys and slopes, and opening up vast panoramas.
The road that leads to Sabóia and the Alentejo passes through some of the most beautiful countryside in the Algarve, a region blessed with leafy woods and groves of fruit trees watered by fast-flowing streams. It is worth taking the turn off to Barranco dos Pisões where a recently restored water-mill can be found and a picnic site with the Ribeira de Seixe on one side, where the freshness of the running water, the tops of the green trees, a spring and an enormous plane tree combine to create an excellent spot for resting and taking in the natural surroundings.
Trees, Flowers and Birds
The temperature and rainfall of the Monchique hills are those of a subtropical maritime mountain type climate. The serra is like a marvellous botanical garden, with more than a thousand plant species, for many of which it constitutes the southwest European limit.
Despite forest fires and plantations of pine and eucalyptus, areas of differing sizes of oak, cork oak, chestnut and strawberry tree still persist, along with hundreds of types of colourful wild flowers, turning the hills into a paradise for amateur botanists. There is plenty for birdwatchers to see too. Among the dozens of species to he found are grey herons, goshawks, buzzards, golden and short-toed eagles, moorhens, woodpigeons, doves, cuckoos, owls, kingfishers, nightingales, wrens and tits.
A Rock Called “Foiaíto”
Many millennia ago, a mass of rock erupted through the schists of which all the hills of the Algarve are made, giving birth to the broken relief that lends the Serra de Monchique its charm.
The igneous rocks of which the serra is formed are known collectively as syenites. One of them, because of its specific qualities, has been named “Foiaíto” and is thus forever associated with Fóia, one of the places where it has been found. The other, larger outcrop is Cerro da Picota.
Flavours of The Serra de Monchique
Dishes made with rice and beans or chestnuts are not to be missed, nor are “papas moiras” made with maize flour, beans with meat and the “assadura” made with grilled pork. Equally tempting are the many home-made sausages, including “farinheiras”, “morcelas”, “chouriças” and “molhos”. Another local delicacy is the “presunto” (ham) cured using centuries-old methods, with its dark meat and unforgettable flavour.
Honey is an ingredient common to nearly all the cakes and desserts of the Monchique region, such as “bolo de tacho” and honey pudding. Monchique honey has a well-established reputation because of the many fragrances of the forest flowers: it has been produced and sold since the 16th century, and is today a certified product.
At the end of a meal nothing goes down like a glass of “medronho”, the heady spirit made in copper stills from the fruits of the strawberry tree, or of “melosa”, a mixture of brandy and honey.
A Land of Crafts
Handicrafts in Monchique are based on a wide range of activities which have stood the test of time and continue to develop in a traditional way. The knowhow is passed from generation to generation, and reflects a way of life as well as being an important aspect of the identity of the town. Wicker baskets, the making of wooden spoons, knives and other kitchenware, “scissor” chairs, ceramics, pottery, and weaving are some examples of this diversity, connected as much to specific economic activities as to popular art.